Restorative School Landscaping

School facilities managers and maintenance staff have the difficult task of balancing the relationship of use, maintenance, quality, and budget. Frequently, quality expectations do not meet the needs of the users, the realities of the budget, and maintenance staff. Safety concerns, vandalism, age of the development, user complaints, poor visual appearance, and lack of maintenance due to budget or staffing constraints, are all factors that indicate that a change is necessary. Few school districts have the financial capability of starting over with complete site redesign. Landscape restoration is a cost-effective option to consider.

Problems that most school facilities managers deal with are fairly common. They can include sites that are unattractive, or even unsafe. As competition for students increases and enrollment is dropping, schools need to present an attractive image. Safety concerns are more critical, and often go unnoticed to the untrained eye. More often however, concerns deal with grounds that are difficult and/or expensive to maintain. Poor design, plant selection, and inappropriate use or maintenance of grounds are often the cause of many of these issues.

Steps for Restoring a School Site
A professional, such as a landscape architect, can provide the necessary experience to accomplish a restoration project. A site analysis combined with a meeting of school professionals and maintenance staff will be the first step of the design process. The design professional will need to determine the expectations the school professionals have for their site, the budget for renovations, and the amount of maintenance (staff time) that the site can expect to receive following renovations. Frequently expectations exceed the budget and the maintenance input. A design professional is invaluable at this point in developing a plan that can successfully accommodate all concerns. A site plan should be prepared that depicts current conditions (existing vegetation, buildings, athletic facilities, walks, parking, soils, utilities, drainage, and property boundary) as well as the physical condition of each item.

The information collected will then be studied to determine opportunities and constraints in developing the plan. The existing vegetation is analyzed to determine its value. Plantings that are overgrown or difficult to maintain would be noted. Areas suitable for naturalized or low-maintenance landscapes would be identified, such as areas too steep or wet to mow.

Soils will be examined as well. Soils are often overlooked by facilities managers. By taking soil samples and having them analyzed by a local agency, recommendations can be made for amendments to improve the soils. Also, plants can be identified that do well in a particular soil type. By matching plants to soils, as well as microclimate (sun, shade, temperature, winds, etc.), they have a better chance for survival with minimal maintenance.

Views can be identified as well. Some views will need to be maintained, like the view to a building entry. Others, such as an undesirable offsite view, will need to be screened. Utilities will also be considered, such as an overhead power line or underground utilities.

Traffic patterns and use of facilities should be analyzed also. Frequently, walkways are too narrow or non-existent. Over time, areas on either side of too narrow walkways erode, making lawn impossible and often creating a tripping hazard. Sometimes “paths” develop through plant beds or across lawn areas because it makes for the shortest or quickest route to a common destination. Noting these instances will also be necessary when developing a restoration plan.

Finally, analysis of the existing site should identify staff and student input and intervention. School sites are unique in that they are a second home to both students and staff, and as such, receive personal embellishment. Class gardens and memorial plantings and site furnishings are features that must sensitively be incorporated, or have appropriate space provided, with a new plan.

Design Techniques
Based on the site inventory and assessment findings, develop a strategy for restoring the landscape. Health and safety issues should be addressed as a top priority. Plan to prune dead branches and remove any dead, dying, or dangerous plant materials. Tripping hazards should also be identified and corrected, whether from plants, roots, or discrepancies in pavement elevations.

Typically, a substantial amount of most school sites are not currently being used, and most likely exist as mowed lawn. This area presents the greatest potential for changing the maintenance requirements of the school. Lawns are a drain on maintenance budgets, and are not ecologically friendly. “No-Mow” lawns (grasses which are fairly low and do not require regular mowing) could be an option for areas that need to be remain “open” visually. Allowing natural vegetation to return to a lawn area is another option.

Plantings should be kept simple. In addition to matching plants to their location and soil types, mass planting of a single species can lower maintenance costs and present a clean, unified appearance. Plants have a life expectancy, the same as materials. Also, some plants are hardier than others and are capable of bouncing back from abuse or neglect. The proper plants and placement can provide a functional and maintenance-responsive design that will address existing conditions as well as indiscriminate foot traffic.

Grouping existing trees and shrubs in a unifying plant bed can improve the function of the landscape and reduce maintenance costs. Single trees and shrubs in lawn areas can be subject to damage from people and equipment, as there is no buffer zone. Mowing around single trees is more difficult and time consuming. Placing a bed of shredded bark around groups of trees and shrubs can alleviate these issues. Removing lawn from the root zone and replacing it with shredded bark is a healthy benefit for trees and shrubs. This creates a buffer for plant material, reducing damage from contact and root compaction.

Finally, with the information acquired during the site analysis, develop a plan to rejuvenate lawns in high use sports fields. Proper soil treatment, combined with proper grass species and water requirements, help reduce maintenance required as well as improve the function of the field.

Design Aesthetics
The aesthetics of a school property or building can be accented with an appropriate landscape design. Flowering trees near a building entry or a school sign can provide a pleasant experience for students, teachers, and visitors alike.

Often, small details such as small plants, bulbs, and subtle changes in color or texture are ignored by users of school sites. A single bold statement will make the most impact. Use a singe specimen tree or shrub to provide interest and impact at key locations. Select materials that bloom or look their best during the school year. Many flowering shrubs bloom in April and May. Other plants develop beautiful fall color. Evergreen trees and shrubs have something to offer all year long.

Perennials and ornamental grasses are another option for traditional plantings that can create color and drama for a small price and minimal maintenance. Perennials can be useful in areas where snow storage is required in the winter. No damage will occur to plants that die back in the winter when the snow is piled up. Use perennials instead of shrubs along walkways. Ornamental grasses can make a bold statement, provide winter interest, and are easy to grow and maintain. Grasses only need to be cut back once a year. Perennials can be divided as they grow, providing additional plants for no cost.
Design for Education and Ecology
The landscape also has potential to provide educational benefits. Demonstrations concerning ecology or the environment can be given with the appropriate landscape treatment. Indigenous plantings can create an outdoor science lab by creating wildlife habitats for small animal and bird populations. A pond for aquatic study could also be provided if existing water table, drainage, and soil conditions lend themselves to the site. If applicable, a pond could be an ecologically sound alternative to traditional storm water management.

Water quality, soil erosion, and local microclimates are all affected by the landscape. Trees provide shade that can lower temperatures (buildings as well as grounds), and grasses help retain valuable topsoil. Trees can also provide a windbreak for athletic fields or screen an undesirable view. As schools look to reduce energy consumption and become more green, a thoughtful landscape design can contribute to these goals.

Benefits of Design
A final master plan for an entire property can help establish a budget, determine maintenance needs, and can easily be phased over a number of years. Prioritize goals and needs, addressing health and safety issues first. Over the long term, a carefully restored landscape will become more attractive and functional, favorably impacting the environment, improving school pride, and enhancing the community’s image, while reducing maintenance cost. Benefits can be sustained over the life of the property by routine monitoring. Knowing what to do and how to do it correctly are cornerstones of the day-to-day site maintenance program.

Robert Rinck, ASLA, is founder of Site Design and Management System, Inc. in Lansing, MI.